The answer to the question is that I very likely won't be doing any covers, though I haven't ruled it out. This is not because I don't like the idea of covering other people's music. I would love nothing more than to pay homage to some of my favourite musicians/songwriters and sharing that with you. Though hundreds of thousands of videos on YouTube would suggest there is nothing to it, the truth is somewhat more unsettling.
Before I begin, let me make it clear that I am not a copyright-abolitionist. The original intent of the Statute of Anne - preventing the monopolizing of creative works so that they may eventually enter the public domain to encourage further creation, while also encouraging authors to engage in creativity by providing rights to them - is a noble goal. I believe that the idea of providing time limited exclusive rights to the author of a creative work is fair and effective.
However, the two italicized points from the previous sentence illustrate how copyright has become a deformed tool of Big Content. 14 years - renewable only by the living author upon expiry- has grown to upwards of 50 years after the passing of the author; given the speed at which information is being created and the ease at which is can be exploited, it seems more important that work be given to the public sooner rather than later. One could also argue that the author has less to fear from the public than from the legal entities and corporations who claim to protect their interests yet seem to take a great deal of their creative ownership. In some cases (possibly many), artists that aren't in a position of power can be forced to give almost absolute control in return for the services publishers and labels provide.
Despite what it's become, I do believe in the principals of copyright. The songs I've been sharing and will continue to share with you are under my copyright (which under Canadian law I have the moment I put pen to paper or bits to disk). I'm just being a little more liberal with it.
In order to cover a song, you need a license from the copyright holder (or more often than not in the industry, an organization that handles this for them). The two types of licenses we're concerned with here are mechanical licenses and performance licenses. Mechanical licenses apply to physical (or digital) reproductions, while performance royalties refer to live, broadcast or recorded performances. There are a lot of myths around these licenses and royalties, so let me address a few big ones:
Myth #1: If you're not making any money off the cover, you don't need a license.
False. Even if you aren't making a cent, you are still required to pay for a license.
Myth #2: I'm fine as long as I credit the original artist
False. While crediting the original artist is a must, it does not entitle you to cover their song and distribute it. Only a license from the copyright holder can do that.
Myth #3: When you perform covers live, you don't have to pay for a license
This is a half truth. Venues/promoters are considered the ones responsible for acquiring licenses for the music performed at their establishments; they are essentially paying you to then perform them (even if in reality you're the one deciding what to play). So while it's true that you don't have to pay for a license, it's only because someone is paying it on your behalf.
Myth #4: Just like a venue, YouTube takes care of the licenses for me
False. YouTube has clear statements in their guidelines stating that acquiring licenses for copyrighted material is the responsibility of the uploader.
Myth #5: Samples don't count
False. Samples DO count. While in the past sampling was argued to be "fair use" (a legal exception exclusive to the US, though Canada does have a similar concept known as "fair dealing"), the law has shifted. Whether you agree with it or not, licenses must be acquired.
So now that we've established that licenses are necessary, our next question is how much it will cost. The normal licensing rate from organizations like Harry Fox for physical copies and digital downloads is roughly 10 cents per copy of the song. Bear in mind that there is often a minimum license fee; even if you only expect a few dozen copies/plays, you might still have to pay several hundred dollars. When it comes to streaming services like YouTube or subscription services like Last.fm, bulk licensing comes into play, and depending on the particular artist/publisher/agency, the price could even reach thousands of dollars.
Legalities aside, the common feeling is that very little policing is done on sites like YouTube, and on the rare chance of being caught the expense to settle would be minimal. The idea is to take the "easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission" approach. This may have been true at one point, but more and more artists finding themselves caught as labels and organization like the RIAA are getting better at discovering copyright violations.
There's no risk of being sent to an institution to share accommodations with an individual who is 300 pounds of muscle and refers to you as "sugarplum", but you could be forced to pay a significant amount of money. Even if payment is not demanded, accounts are often suspended without notice; this can be a major problem if the artist has been using it as the primary channel for interacting with their fans.
If anyone has any solid findings that I've made a mistake in all this, please share it in the comments; I'll look into it and correct the post if necessary. I can't say for certain where I accumulated all this knowledge came from, but I would say sources include:
- sites of companies like Harry Fox, ASCAP, and SOCAN
- Google's terms of service for YouTube
- blogs of musicians like Adam Rafferty
- various presentations and lectures by Lawrence Lessig
- The almighty Wikipedia
So, given everything I just described, I'm a little reluctant to go through the hassle of covering a song. But I may find something Creative Common's licensed or public domain I can cover, or if I'm really lucky I might be able to make arrangements with one of the artists I enjoy to cover their work cost-free (assuming agreements with publishers don't prevent them from doing so).
Or maybe I'll just get in a rebellious mood at some point and decide "what the hell!"